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Posts Tagged ‘living in public eye’

This Crow Won’t Fly

The United States has a long history of using mean-spirited and often brutal laws to keep “certain” people out of public spaces and out of public consciousness.  Jim Crow laws segregated the South after the Civil War and Sundown Towns forced people to leave town before the sun set. The anti-Okie law of 1930s California forbade poor Dustbowl immigrants from entering the state and Ugly Laws (on the books in Chicago until the 1970s) swept the country and criminalized people with disabilities for allowing themselves to be seen in public.

Today, such laws target mostly homeless people and are commonly called “quality of life” or “nuisance crimes.”  They criminalize sleeping, standing, sitting, and even food-sharing.  Just like the laws from our past, they deny people their right to exist in local communities.

In June of this year, Rhode Island took a meaningful stand against this criminalization, and passed the first statewide Homeless Bill of Rights in the country. The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP)—a West Coast grassroots network of homeless people’s organizations—is now launching simultaneous campaigns in California and Oregon. Rhode Island will only be the beginning.

Today’s “quality of life” laws and ordinances have their roots in the broken-windows theory.  This theory holds that one poor person in a neighborhood is like a first unrepaired broken window and if the “window” is not immediately fixed or removed, it is a signal that no one cares, disorder will flourish, and the community will go to hell in a handbasket.

For this theory to make sense, you first have to step away from thinking of people, or at least poor people, as human beings. You need to objectify them. You need to see them as dusty broken windows in a vacant building.  That is why we now have Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) with police enforcement to keep that neighborhood flourishing by keeping poor, unsightly people out of it.

We have gone from the days where people could be told “you can’t sit at this lunch counter” to “you can’t sit on this sidewalk,” from “don’t let the sun set on you here” to “this public park closes at dusk” and from “you’re on the wrong side of the tracks” to “it is illegal to hang out” on this street or corner.

Unless we organize, it isn’t going to get much better soon.   Since 1982, the federal government has cut up to $52 billion a year from affordable housing and pushed hundreds of thousands of people into the  shelter system or into the street.  Today we continue to have three million people a year without homes.  1982 also marked the beginning of homelessness as a “crime wave” that would consume the efforts of local and state police forces over the next three decades.  Millions of people across the country sitting, lying down, hanging out, and — perhaps worst of all – sleeping are cited in crime statistics.
WRAP and our allies recently conducted outreach to over 700 homeless people in 13 cities; we found 77% of people had been arrested, cited, or harassed for sleeping, 75% for loitering, and 73% for sitting on a sidewalk.

We are right back to Jim Crow Laws, Sundown Towns, Ugly Laws and Anti-Okie Laws, local laws that profess to “uphold the locally accepted obligations of civility.” Such laws have always been used by people in power against those on the outside. In other words, today’s Business Improvement Districts and Broken Window Laws are, at their core, a reincarnation of various phases of American history none of us is proud of.

And they reflect a political voice now openly entering the political and media mainstream that dismisses social justice as economically irrelevant and poor people as humanly irrelevant.

This is not about caring for or even advocating for “those people.” This is about all of us. As Aboriginal leader Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  If you are not homeless, if you are not the target now, then understand that you are next. Isolated and fragmented, we lose this fight.

But we are no longer isolated and fragmented.  On April 1, WRAP and USCAI (US Canadian Alliance of Inhabitants) sponsored a  Day of Action in 17 cities.  We are one of hundreds of organizations and allies, from Massachusetts to NewYork and from Tennessee to California, all separate but all working together to give meaning to social justice and protect the civil and human rights of all of us.

We can only win this struggle if we use our collective strengths, organizing, outreach, research, public education, artwork, and direct actions. We are continuing to expand our network of organizations and cities and we will ultimately bring down the whole oppressive system of policing poverty and treating poor people as “broken windows” to be discarded and replaced.

To join our campaign for a Homeless Bill of Rights in both California and Oregon contact WRAP at wrap@wraphome.org and we will hook you up with organizers working in both of these states or others as this movement continues to grow.

 

Posted on August 27, 2012 by WRAP Comms

This Crow Won’t Fly:
http://wraphome.org/?p=2466&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=119

Criminalization Fact Sheet:
http://wraphome.org/?p=2474&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=119

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Law Center’s Advocacy Creates International Pressure

February 06, 2012:  In an unprecedented letter to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the United Nations has delivered a clear message: by not providing sanitation and safe drinking water, the city is violating the human rights of homeless persons.

The letter, sent by UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque, cites targeted closings of public restrooms, decommissioning of water fountains, and a lack of other clean water sources as blatant violations.

Albuquerque visited Sacramento in February 2011, as part of a fact-finding mission organized by the Law Center and Sacramento-based Safe Ground and Legal Services of Northern California.  She heard direct testimony from homeless campers, who are forced to rely on makeshift privy systems to deal with privacy and human waste issues.

“The UN has delivered a powerful message: the U.S. doesn’t get a free pass on its human rights violations.  Sacramento must take immediate steps to address the needs of its homeless population, ” said Eric Tars, human rights program director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center).  “Access to water and sanitary facilities is one of the most fundamental of human rights — essential to everyone’s health, dignity, and continued life. ”

To read the full press release, click here.

To read the full letter to Mayor Johnson, click here.

To read the UN’s report, click here.

http://www.nlchp.org/news.cfm?id=178

The organization has a newsletter, free, online subscription.
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
www.nlchp.org  and WDC ph.  202-638-2535

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Homeless need our understanding


By RANDALL AMSTER
Courier Columnist

Here we go again. The criminalization of a class of people simply because of who they are, coupled with expanded police powers, all done in the name of economic security and public order. While I could be talking about immigration under this rubric, the issue of homelessness in Prescott raises similar concerns and deserves thoughtful consideration.

Just as we’ve seen a strong backlash against the state’s draconian new immigration law, cities and towns adopting stringent anti-homeless policies oftentimes find themselves creating an unwelcoming atmosphere that actually drives away tourists and shoppers.

Urban and quasi-urban areas that are overly regulated and sanitized can undercut the energy and spontaneity that make for a dynamic experience in public places.,/h2> Prescott’s downtown squarely fits this framework.

As is almost always the case, the charge to “crack down” on vagrants and the homeless (not the same thing, by the way) is being led by local business owners who’ve suffered a downturn in their enterprises.

Many factors are at play here: a protracted recession, lower consumer confidence, and the development of malls on the town’s outskirts. Local businesses, that we certainly ought to support, should be pointing a finger at a city council that has subsidized big-box development and undermined Prescott’s desirability as a tourist destination by making it look more like a generic Anytown instead of protecting its unique heritage.

Homeless people, however, make for a more convenient scapegoat, in part because their presence is so public – by definition, after all, a homeless person is one who lacks a private space to retreat to and therefore exists primarily in public.

Consider the behaviors being talked about as problematic and potentially criminal, such as sleeping, eliminating, sitting, asking for help. All of these are completely innocent and essential human activities, none of which are illegal when done inside one’s private space.

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When done in public, however, they are seen as nuisances, and the answer often proposed is criminalization in which jail sentences can be given for such acts.

Moreover, by and large such actions are limited to a particular class of people, namely the homeless, and in this sense laws against these behaviors seek to create “status crimes” aimed almost exclusively at a certain group.

When the City Attorney says that the city is focusing on conduct and not aiming at a “classification” of people, it indicates his awareness that status crimes are unconstitutional and unenforceable in the United States, yet it also demonstrates his disingenuousness because we all know who these laws are intended to impact.

As Anatole France once said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Indeed, we are all equal under the law, but some of us are more unequal than others.

The homeless are a diverse group that increasingly includes displaced working-class people, families, and veterans. They deserve equal respect and a place to exist.

If not in “Everybody’s Hometown,” then where else?

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is a professor of Peace and Justice Studies and chairman of the Master of Arts Program in Humanities at Prescott College.

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